Author Henry Olsen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on Thursday’s Breitbart News Daily to talk about his new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.
Olsen said he was inspired to write the book by “the debacle of 2008, where conservatism and Republicanism seemed to be in retreat.”
“I knew Ronald Reagan had brought us back from the dead before, so I thought I’d look and see how he did it, and I learned that everything I knew about Reagan was wrong, that he was much more of a populist than he had been given credit, and that’s what allowed him to attract the Reagan Democrats that put him in the White House and let him change America and the world,” he said.
Marlow cited a passage of the book which explains that Reagan forged a bond with white working-class voters from the Democrats’ New Deal coalition who were concerned with rising crime and taxes in the Sixties and Seventies, and the lack of respect for American virtues shown by the Sixties cultural revolutionaries. He noted the parallels with President Trump’s appeal to a similar bloc of voters, who propelled him to an upset victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Olsen agreed that with Trump, “we’re seeing a version of the same phenomenon.”
“It’s not rising crime, although there is some of that,” he noted. “These people are being economically battered, and I think President Trump put his finger on it when he ran for office and found something the entire Republican establishment overlooked,” he said.
Olsen listed some reasons why both Reagan and Trump were able to overcome media caricatures as unserious entertainers.
“One, they’re both very smart people, so there were able to put things together on their own,” he said.
“Two, they were in touch with the values of American blue-collar workers,” he continued. “American blue-collar workers want to be able to support themselves, but also want some support from society. They want respect. They want dignity. And because they’re less skilled, they need some active intervention in the economy, so they’re not marginalized and treated like collateral damage in a businessman’s pursuit for profits.”
“It’s something that both Reagan and Trump saw because of their background and their values, and they were able to use their smarts and their skills to communicate that,” he said.
Olsen explained that Trump, like Reagan, ran on a platform of trimming big government rather than completely dismantling it, and most importantly on refocusing its priorities to help the American working class.
“He basically ran on the platform that the American worker has been ignored by the elites in both parties for too long, and that Donald Trump was going to support their values, and he would have their backs,” he said. He argued that as long as Trump is able to pursue policies along those lines, he will retain and even increase his support from blue-collar voters.
Olsen said the animating themes of blue-collar conservatism are “love of the common person” and a preference for principle over ideology.
“The blue-collar conservative is somebody who wants to make their own way, loves freedom, but also wants the sort of security from what Ronald Reagan called the theft of their democratic rights by private sources, as well as from public sources,” he explained.
“They need a hand up. They need some government support that gives some security, and gives them opportunity – but once that’s provided, they want government to get out of the way and let them move on with life,” he said. “That’s what Ronald Reagan communicated and that’s what, at his best, Donald Trump is communicating too.”
Olsen said one of the inaccurate impressions of Ronald Reagan held by people on both the left and right is that he wanted to “tear down modern government” – that he was “Barry Goldwater libertarian-style with a better smile and a better camera personality.”
“What I learned is that Ronald Reagan wasn’t an ideologue. He did not want to tear down the State. He wanted to turn and make the state what, as my research learned, he said in his first inaugural address: he wanted the State to be our guide, not somebody that rode us on our backs and told us what to do. He advocated a much larger role for government than anybody on left or right had ever really acknowledged and told me or the American people about,” he said.
Olsen said his research convinced him Reagan was a “smart and thoughtful person,” not just a skilled communicator.
“He spent hours thinking about these issues, reading about these issues, and he formulated his own original philosophy. He wasn’t parroting what other people on the right were saying, which is another thing that you tend to be told by right and left, that he was simply a better communicator for other people’s ideas. No, he had his own ideas, and he arrived at them by himself. Only a very smart person could do that,” he said.
Marlow argued that Trump was likewise dismissed as out-of-touch by the media because he disagrees with them, not because he is truly disconnected from the American people.
Olsen agreed that if the media gave Trump credit for understanding the working class, “they would have to acknowledge that they were out of touch, and remain out of touch, with what the average American wants.”
“The average American wants what they’ve wanted for over a hundred years: they want a hand up in American life,” he said. “They don’t want a government that ignores them and stands off by the side, which is a libertarian-style government or a minimalist government. But they really don’t want the government paternalism that the Obama administration and the Democratic party have adopted as their leitmotif. They want a government that will help them get along in American life and help them be free, strong, independent individuals.”
Olsen said his biggest surprise from his research was “the degree to which, when the chips were down, Ronald Reagan directly but subtly quoted Franklin Roosevelt.”
“Some of his most famous lines were direct thefts from less-famous things that Roosevelt said,” he noted. “In the 1980 debate, when Reagan’s political future was on the line, his closing statement was a direct reformulation of the exact words and questions that Franklin Roosevelt asked in 1933 in his fireside chats. That couldn’t have been an accident. Ronald Reagan was someone who, even running as a big so-called conservative, was running directly under the influence of Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas.”
Olsen said both the right and left portray Reagan as an “inflexible ideologue who rode his charisma and the circumstances of the times to victory,” but in truth Reagan is better understood as an anti-ideologue.
“He criticized ideology extensively in his 1977 speech to CPAC, which I discuss at length in the book,” he said. “Ronald Reagan was always a master coalition builder. From the minute he starts running for governor, he understands that he needs to unite the Republican Party, and that included at the time moderate elements. Rather than drive them out as impure, he said that left, right, and center Republicans have more in common than they have with any group of Democrats. He built a coalition that was a majority from the second he started thinking about running for governor.”
Olsen gave the audience two big reasons for picking up his book.
“One is if you loved Ronald Reagan and you want to understand him, you will get the real picture here. The real Ronald Reagan whose love was of human beings, not of abstract ideas,” he said.
“Secondly, more importantly for today, you’ll understand why Donald Trump put together the coalition to win the White House, why other Republicans failed, and that the only course forward for the Republican Party is to add the blue-collar voter that Trump attracted to the existing Republican base. If the Republican Party fails to do that, it will be a minority party, and the Democrats will run this country for fifty years,” he warned.
“My book explains why that’s needed and how to put it together. If you want to do it, it’s a playbook for you. Go to the last chapter, read the last 50 pages, and you’ll have the playbook: how to put together the Trump majority,” said Olsen.
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